AfriGadget Innovator Series: Simon Mwacharo of Craftskills

I recently had a chance to conduct an email interview with Simon Mwacharo, an entrepreneur based in Nairobi, Kenya who a great example of what George Ayitteh has so aptly described as “The Cheetah Generation”.

Simon owns and runs CraftSkills, a small business based in Nairobi, Kenya that focuses on designing and building self-sustaining renewable energy projects in places not accessible to the electric grid. Craftskills had to date undertaken challenging projects in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Cameroon and Rwanda among other places. Simon, whom AfriGadget first got to meet last summer at TED Global in Arusha, Tanzania, graciously agreed to conduct an email interview with AfriGadget.

Craftskills windmill project

AfriGadget: Could you tell us when and how Craft Skills got into the business of renewable energy in East Africa and the inspiration behind the organization?

Simon: CRAFTSKILLS was found in the year 2000 by myself. I was inspired by a challenge from my rural home where we have not had power for the last 40 plus years since [Kenya’s] independence [in 1963]. I come from a hill side village in Sagalla, Taita Hills in Coast Province where we receive quite some strong wind from the Nyika Plateau. This wind passes through without being tapped and sometimes our roofs can not stand in its way.

I started talking to people about wind turbines and how I can get an affordable one which I can make and produce for other needy people. When darkness falls in these villages plus the fog it is virtually impossible to travel the terrain at night.

AfriGadget: Tell us a little about the people behind Craft Skills and the staff who work for the organization.

Simon: I started with two workers. I could not afford to hire trained people so I decided to train myself first then train my two boys. Then I got a friend who repairs radios and TVs in Kibera to help me design and put together a charge controller.

Now we have a team of 20 people and other partners out there in the field with their staff totaling 50. We have technicians, welders fitters, fiberglass experts and engineers and sales people.

AfriGadget: What is the typical profile of a Craft Skills project? Who is your typical client and how are the projects typically executed?

Simon: Most of our clients are not the owners of the projects we put up. They benefit from the battery charging services in the wind/solar sites we put up with our partners. The low income earners who cannot afford grid power or are in settlements where grid power is unavailable. We take both to do the sites ourselves involving the people on the ground as partners. Others are home owners who have invested a lot on building good homes in non grid areas – these put up turbines for their own use like lighting, and pumping water from wells and boreholes. The other segment is the business people I market areas where there is no grid who put up turbines to run charging centres and sell power to other shops or run their off-grid businesses like lodges and hotels, schools and other institutions.

AfriGadget: Can you share with our readers some of the challenges that Craft Skills faces in executing your projects?

Simon: We have faced cultural challenges where we cannot put a turbine on the most ideal site due to beliefs on such sites hence we have to educate the citizens to allow us to do so or redesign the project and relocate. Another is the financial capability of the citizens we find in these off grid areas.

[As a result of this] we have designed low power product (battery bundles and LED lights) to reach them so that they can be counted as beneficiaries of this new technology.

AfriGadget: Why renewable energy? What is the rationale behind Craft Skills’ exclusive focus on projects that produce energy from renewable sources.

Simon: We were looking for something which is affordable and sustainable and cuts across the economic sectors. Solar was proving to be more expensive, delicate, sophisticated and easily stolen when installed on ones home. We needed to sell people more power at a cheaper rate hence wind was the best candidate.

Wind is everywhere just like solar – one needs to get the right spot to put the turbine as high as they can. Its 24 hrs (Day and Night) and we found a cheap way we could make our turbines take advantage of low wind situations with the multi-pole generator, hollow blades for the propeller, with 90 per cent locally available materials making our technology the best application for this region.

AfriGadget: Which would you say has been the most satisfying/gratifying project that you have been involved with at Craft Skills? What was so special to you about this particular project?

Simon: The Chifiri water pan project to me is most gratifying. This settlement is all arid land pastoral community. The demand for water for drinking washing and watering the thousands of livestock is enormous.

Our turbine provided a cheaper solution for water and lighting the “manyattas” around the water pan. The contractor on the ground is excellent on his construction of the earth dams. His design impressed me that water was going to be available for over 6 months instead of the normal 4 months after the rainy seasons. He made sure the dams were well compacted and fenced to avoid animals hoofing inside the dam – increasing the rate of percolation and lose of water in the ground. Water is only available at the kiosks which are piped and placed near the settlements. The project provides water troughs for the animals to drink from and bathrooms for the people to clean themselves in. Within the fenced dam there is an armed home guard or caretaker manning the place with a security light up the tower hoisting the turbine.

Craftskills - Water wheel at a water project in Cameroon

Simon was also interviewed by Juliana Chebet aka AfroMusing, a Senior Editor at AfriGadget on CraftSkills. You can find the video at this link.

HAPV – Human and Animal Powered Vehicle in South Africa

The HAPV (Advertised as HAPPY) is a twist on the ‘horse and buggy’ mode of transportation, making this a donkey, cart, solar panel on a canopy FUV (Farm Utility Vehicle) that is quite ingenious and absolutely AfriGadget. A donkey drawn carriage is commonplace in many countries in Africa, and this retrofit by the organization Water and Wheel adds more functionality and utility especially suited for rural Africa.


Fitted with a solar panel that charges a 12 volt battery under the driver’s seat, the “HAPPY” becomes an independent, sustainable source of energy that powers cell phone connectivity, front and rear emergency lights and a small neon tube at night. Add a water filtration system, and the “HAPPY” doubles as a multi functional mobile business unit, that can empower an entrepreneurial owner, to generate income from it as a fresh water outlet, a mobile phone kiosk or a spaza shop – even after dark.

Read more about it here.

(Hat tip Mweshi)

Note: Erik Hersman (White African) was interviewed a few minutes ago on BBC, a podcast will be available in a day or two and we will be sure to share it here (link).

The VIP – an invention from Zimbabwe

Ingenuity, obviously, isn’t only limited to the African continent, as it is especially found in societies where access to resources is limited. While we’ve been able to witness lots of interesting innovations from other regions of the world that were born out of a lack of readily available solutions, we must also not forget that a few smart ideas were actually developed in Africa and have since then conquered the world.

One of such smart ideas is the Ventilated (Improved) Pit Latrine, in short: the VIP – which was developed as the “Blair Latrine” by Peter Morgan, who has been living and working in Zimbabwe for over 35 years, researching and developing water and sanitation technologies.

venting a pit latrine
Diagram showing effect of vent pipe on functions of pit latrine (source)

The major advantage of the VIP over a normal pit latrine is that it comes with a ventilation pipe (covered with a durable fly screen on top) which reduces flies and odour. In the absence of other alternatives, the Ventilated Pit Latrine is considered reliable, which explains the success of this technology: over 500.000+ units of this type have been built in Zimbabwe alone and it has proven to work elsewhere around the world.

The VIP clearly isn’t the solution to sustainable sanitation as it comes with a few limitations, but it does function without water and has very low investment, operation and maintenance costs.

Next to some interesting experiments with different water pump systems such as the Blair hand pump (also known as the Zimbabwe Bush Pump) or the spiral water wheel pump, Peter is also active in the field of ecological sanitation and recently published a very interesting booklet titled “Toilets That Make Compost” where he writes about his experiences with compost toilets such as the Arborloo and the Fossa Alterna.

screenshot from Peter Morgan’s manual on how to build an Arborloo (PDF,~ 3,1MB)

While there’s no single sanitation concept that will work in all places around the world, the VIP for one is a proven technology which has been accepted by its users since 30 years.

Water Harvesting by Roadside Plant Nursery

David Mwangi has run a roadside tree and plant nursery outside of Nairobi for four years. In Kenya, you have to work around the two seasons (unlike the 4 in the West). The rainy season where everything is fine, and the dry season where your plants will likely die. This gets even worse when a drought happens.

Roadside Nursery in Kenya

David had the idea to dig a ditch down the side of the road and channel that into two 2-meter deep water catchments. The water is used to support the plants during the dry season and he never runs out of water, even during a drought. He has also stocked the pulls with fish (Tilapia), that he and his workers eat. A third byproduct is that the rain water being diverted doesn’t further erode that part of the road.

It’s a lesson in simplicity married with low-tech ingenuity coming together for increased business profitability.

Here’s a short video, where one of my friends translates for David:

More pictures available at the Flickr AfriGadget group.

If you have any stories or pictures of African innovations and ingenuity, please contact us.

Kickstart Technologies: irrigation, and cooking oil human-powered pumps

I met the managers of Kickstart technology at the recent TED Global conference in Arusha, Tanzania. Kickstart’s patented technology bridges the gap between expensive industrialize equipment used to pump, squeeze or pack and all it’s products are human powered. This is a very important feature in Africa for the Base of the Pyramid (BOP) market, because it solves the issue of energy and cost for equipment used in agriculture, and construction.

Kickstart’s most popular product is an irrigation pump that uses the stepping motion you see in a work-out gym to move water hundreds of feet to irrigate land. Kickstart also has been able to sell several thousands of these products all across Africa, and has been approach by the United Nations to sell globally.

Below is the irrigation pump

Kickstart pressing pump for building construction

Below you can see a picture of a person squeezing seeds to make oil

Here is a little more about Kickstart from the organization’s website.

About KickStart

KickStart’s mission is to help millions of people out of poverty. We promote sustainable economic growth and employment creation in Kenya and other countries by developing and promoting technologies that can be used by dynamic entrepreneurs to establish and run profitable small scale enterprises.

Go to the organization website